The Compromise of 1850: Back from the Brink of Civil War
By 1850 the issue of slavery was rising to a boiling point in America, and the fragile harmony between slave states and free states was unraveling. Vast new Western lands were acquired by the U.S. after the Mexican-American War, including California—which was eager for statehood. Admitting California as a free state would mean that for the first time there would be more free states than slave states, upsetting the balance of power in Congress. Slaveholders wished to bring their property, including their human property, to the new territories. The 1846 Wilmot Proviso, which would have prohibited slavery in the newly-acquired territories, was never passed. However, its mere proposal had enraged the South. On the other hand, the Proviso's defeat made abolitionists and others in the North all the more determined to prevent the extension of slavery into the West.
Article continues after this newspaper image from the January 31, 1850, issue of the Milwaukee Sentinel (Wisconsin)
The Senate was the focus of intense political debate, including some of the most famous speeches in American history. Kentucky Senator Henry Clay presented a plan for compromise, addressing the concerns of both North and South. South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun, in his answering speech, caused great dismay by predicting that secession of the South was probably inevitable. Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster, speaking "not as a Massachusetts man nor as a Northern man, but as an American," urged passage of Clay's compromise. Chiding Calhoun's pessimism, he stressed the importance of preserving the Union.
Many Northerners were shocked by Webster's willingness to make concessions to slaveholders in the South—in supporting Clay's compromise, Webster was accepting a stronger fugitive slave law. This law addressed Southern complaints that an important part of the U.S. Constitution had been ignored: a requirement that runaway slaves be returned to their masters. The fugitive slave law would weaken legal protections for accused runaways, and punish Northerners who refused to cooperate in their capture. New York Senator William Henry Seward, in his "higher law" address, denied that the Constitution could be reduced to a document whose function was to protect the institution of slavery. These speeches, published in full by newspapers across the country, inspired a great outpouring of editorials and opinion pieces.
Passions continued to run high in Congress. At the height of the conflict, Mississippi Senator Henry Foote drew a pistol on Missouri Senator Thomas Hart Benton right on the floor of the Senate. In the end, the compromise could not be passed as a package. Brilliant political deal-making, notably by Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, ended in a final compromise consisting of five laws, passed separately:
- California was added as a free state.
- New Mexico and Utah were added as territories. Settlers would later vote on the slavery issue. This came to be known as the "popular sovereignty" approach.
- Texas gave up its claims to New Mexico.
- Slave markets were outlawed in Washington, D.C.
- The Fugitive Slave Act was strengthened.
Many historians credit the Compromise of 1850 with preventing the outbreak of civil war for another decade. However, seeds of continuing conflict were sown. "Popular sovereignty" played out in violence between slave-state and free-state factions in "Bleeding Kansas." Enforcement of the new Fugitive Slave Act brought widespread press coverage of the evils of slavery in cases such as that of Ellen and William Craft. Many in the North who had previously been indifferent to the slavery issue were moved by these stories, and more inclined to listen to the arguments of abolitionists.
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